On his second How to Dress Well album Total Loss, Tom Krell abandons much of the murky mystery of his debut, Love Remains, undescoring the R&B roots of his music. It's a bold move, one that puts him in territory closer to the xx than where he was before, and one that sometimes highlights his shortcomings. "When I Was in Trouble" introduces Krell's new aesthetic, bathing his falsetto vocals -- now freed of the static and distortion that cloaked them on his debut -- in electronics that manage to be gloomy and glowing at the same time; on "Struggle," reverb surrounds his voice like a halo. Letting his more-or-less naked voice stand out so clearly offers an entirely different kind of vulnerability than the one he displayed on Love Remains, but Total Loss' more straightforward moments tend to underscore that while his falsetto is fairly impressive, he's just not as accomplished a singer as those he's emulating and referencing. It's tempting to want to hear the album's poppier moments, like "& It Was U," re-created by a team who could give them the full Top 40 vocal and production treatment, since Krell's songwriting has developed by leaps and bounds since the Love Remains days. How to Dress Well still works best when Krell favors the more ethereal side of his music, blurring together his influences into something more unique. He does this especially well on the fittingly frosty "Cold Nites," which grows from clacking typewriters into a surprisingly epic lament; "Say My Name or Say Whatever," with its dreamy spoken word passages and blurry synths, is one of the more logical progressions from Love Remains' mystique. Similarly, "Running Back"'s mix of church-like reverb and a beat full of pops and sighs finds a happy medium between Krell's debut and his new approach, while "Ocean Floor for Everything" feels like a more literal, lower-pitched Balam Acab track. Ultimately, Total Loss reflects a trade-off of one type of emotional expression for another, and the change from the ghostly intimacy of Krell's debut to this clearer, more overt music makes for a prettier, more polished set of songs that are a little less strikingly original than what came before them. Considering how divisive Love Remains' intentional sonic flaws were, if listeners can hear How to Dress Well better on Total Loss, then that counts for something.
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AllMusic Review by Heather Phares